Arrival is a very special movie. It’s a movie that might require some time to digest, being heavy, slow-paced and almost suffocating with its dripping atmosphere, but it’s a movie that is nonetheless very special. It’s not only special for being an ‘alien invasion’ movie that somehow managed to thrive without any action, or even much of any invasion, but also because, where most modern sci-fi movies of this nature tend to be bleak, Arrival is, by contrast, very hopeful and optimistic about humanity, and what we can accomplish when we put our differences aside and work towards a common goal.
It’s a bit ironic, but despite aliens being the focal point and key plot device, Arrival is very much a movie that is mostly about people and humanity, and how we are driven by intrigue, fear and the pursuit of understanding, which can have a variety of beneficial or dangerous outcomes. A superb mystery, exceptional performances and pitch-perfect direction and cinematography complement that inspiration behind the movie’s foundation as well, making Arrival potentially one of the best under-the-radar gems of 2016, and a movie that any fan of sci-fi or suspense dramas absolutely needs to check out on the big screen!
Like I said, as much as the mysterious aliens play a big part in pushing forward this movie’s storyline, it’s actually the human protagonist, Dr. Louise Banks that is placed front and center in most of the story progression. Amy Adams delivers one of her best performances to date as Louise, a woman who happens to be one of the world’s top language experts, and is also defined by a painful and tragic past that gradually comes out as she helps the U.S. military figure out the mysteries behind our planet’s alien visitors.
Arrival is one of those movies where it’s difficult to discuss the characters in greater detail without spoilers, since this is a movie where you definitely want to know as little as possible about it before going in. I have to stress again though that every performance in this movie is top-notch, particularly from Adams in the lead role. Forest Whitaker is another big standout as Colonel Weber, the main U.S. military presence in Arrival, who thankfully avoids being a loose cannon stereotype in many of these alien-themed movies.
Jeremy Renner also plays a big part in the movie as science expert, Dr. Ian Donnelly, though while Renner’s performance is likable and charming, he is definitely overshadowed by Adams especially. A lot of this is due to the fact that Ian isn’t given quite as much to do as Louise, which doesn’t totally work against Arrival, but it does feel like a small missed opportunity at times, especially considering a major plot twist with Ian’s character towards the end. One could still say that Ian is the heart of the movie where Louise is the brain however, even if Louise still ends up supplying plenty of heart to bookend an extremely compelling storyline.
Speaking of Arrival’s plot, it definitely offers one of the best cinematic storylines of 2016, bar none! The movie grips you from the beginning and never lets go until the end credits, with almost every element of its over-arching alien mystery being realized pretty much perfectly. The mystery does need to stretch a bit more in the third act, especially since the movie’s ‘climax’ is very unusual, but even then, the way that everything ends will warm your heart and lift your spirits. It’s sort of surprising that the bleak presentation of Arrival eventually gives way to such a heartfelt final message about humanity as well, despite some of the tragedies and mis-steps that occur during the movie’s events. That contrast seems very deliberate though, boldly challenging humanity to take the high road, rather than simply dismissing us as doomed and reckless.
One slight note of caution with Arrival’s storyline however, which will not matter to all but will matter to some, is that it is very deliberately slow-paced, and tells a slow burn-style mystery. If you’re coming off of the spectacular, action-packed high of Doctor Strange for example, Arrival will seem like it’s crawling at a snail’s pace by comparison. The slow burn style does manage to hold attention, and it does lead to a great final result, but there are quite a few scenes that do linger and take their methodical time. Not everyone will mind this, but for those that may, bear in mind that Arrival is really not an action movie. It’s a dramatic suspense movie that doesn’t feature much in the way of explosions or weaponry, and is more of a thinking person’s sci-fi piece. Those willing to engage in the intellectual discussion however will definitely find lots to dig into, with Arrival succeeding all the more on account of being riveting without needing to be flashy.
Denis Villeneuve directs Arrival, after also making a big splash with award-winning movies like Prisoners and Sicario in recent years. Villeneuve definitely knows his way around bleak, oppressive movies with a resume like that, and his trademark heavy atmosphere is all over Arrival. Like I said though, Arrival is in many respects one of Villeneuve’s most optimistic movies to date, breaking away from the failings of humanity to instead spotlight the best of it. Sure, things get complicated with the alien communication here and there, but overall, Arrival’s message is that humanity is not lost, and we are still capable of great things when we wish to be.
More than the thematic contrast though, what particularly deserves to be praised about Villeneuve’s direction here is how well it realizes the aliens. These aliens are not bipedal, recognizable creatures from any number of sci-fi movies, but truly alien-looking, initially frightening monsters that we can barely comprehend. Masked mostly behind an atmospheric barrier for much of the movie, the aliens’ very method of travel and communication is very unexpected, with their language not just being a language as we understand it, but a whole new method of interpersonal connection previously unexplored.
Arrival’s concept feels incredibly refreshing and original because of these hooks, and the way that Villeneuve makes this sci-fi movie feel quite unlike most others is pretty incredible. You’ll notice some common ground with classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or even a less imposing (and better) version of Signs, but for the most part, Arrival is a movie that challenges both our minds and our creative sensibilities. You may need time to sit on it before you fully comprehend it, but that further highlights just how much this is a powerful sci-fi masterwork that will make quite an impression on you!
Another very cool element of Arrival’s presentation is its musical score by Johann Johannsson. This is a composer with very minimal experience in composing feature film scores, but lots of experience within a lengthy independent musical career, and his unconventional touch lends itself perfectly to the creative, thought-provoking final product of Arrival. The movie’s score feels as foreboding and alien as the atmosphere, yet not in a way that ever feels fatally unnerving. There’s an intrigue behind the music, a vague hopefulness that suits the movie’s final impression well, and effectively places you within the emotional journey of Louise especially, as everyone tries to figure out why these mysterious aliens have come to Earth.
The rest of the audio work is also very grand and echo-y, as if the entire sound stage is massive, spanning the Earth itself. That’s no doubt the idea, since this is a movie that unfolds on a global scale, bringing all of humanity together to ask a common question. This effect is captured even better in premium theatre formats like IMAX as well, should your area be offering one of the movie’s somewhat uncommon IMAX screenings. Even in a regular digital screening however, the audio in the movie is very potent and immersive. You will get even more out of it if you spring for a premium screening though, in IMAX or otherwise, which helps make the movie’s atmosphere feel even more engrossing.
Alongside its incredible intelligence and creativity, another of the best elements of Arrival is definitely its visuals. Despite being put together on a fairly small $47 million budget, Arrival definitely makes the most of its resources, defying its lesser funding to make a movie that becomes visually superb not on raw effects potential, but on inspired, clever filming techniques. This movie is filled with breathtaking camera angles and sweeping shots of large, ominous, yet effortlessly inviting landscapes. Every visual angle is calculated to a tee, and every bit of the movie’s presentation is realized pretty well flawlessly. Arrival is perhaps one of the best testaments to a low-budget sci-fi movie’s visual excellence in the right hands since District 9 from way back in 2009, and that’s quite a feat for director, Villeneuve and the standout effects crew!
As I mentioned, Arrival is also available to view in select IMAX theatres, though less than most IMAX-enabled movie releases, on account of it being sandwiched between November’s two biggest mainstream IMAX 3D-enabled blockbusters, Doctor Strange and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Even in IMAX, Arrival is only available to view in 2D, though that’s fine, since premium formats like IMAX will still help to increase the movie’s atmosphere effectively, particularly when blended with the enhanced audio. It’s not worth worrying about if your local region doesn’t offer the IMAX cut though, as this movie is still realized incredibly well in a standard digital screening. Arrival demands to be experienced in theatres in general, frankly, since that’s the best place to enjoy its amazing atmosphere and attention to detail.
Arrival has a few slow spots and minor disturbances in the otherwise excellent storytelling, but overall, this is a stellar sci-fi/suspense movie that deserves more of a box office intake than what it’s accrued at this point. Perhaps opening between Doctor Strange, Trolls and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them definitely didn’t do Arrival any favours when it comes to commercial success, but if you don’t mind a movie that takes its time saying what it needs to say, and can definitely appreciate a creative and memorable sci-fi film, Arrival absolutely can’t be missed during its theatrical run especially!
Almost everything about Arrival shines, from its performances to its visual design to its soundtrack to its storytelling. As much as the movie’s conclusion will probably initially throw you, and you likely won’t fully formulate your own feelings on this movie as soon as you exit the theatre, Arrival is one of the most inspired and satisfying sci-fi movies to come along in quite a while. More than just any old alien invasion flick, Arrival is a tale of alien visitors with both a sharp brain and a warm heart, one that may lead you in with an unfriendly atmosphere, but eventually leaves you feeling good, and building some nice restored faith in your fellow man.
- Excellent performances all around, especially from Adams
- Creative, memorable storyline with an inspired twist
- Outstanding presentation with stellar audio and visuals
- A few slower or less believable scenes